Despite embarrassing failures in the last two elections, most television networks will not have independent backups to cross-check voter data on Election Night 2004.
In selected states with tight races, Fox News Channel may conduct polling, and CNN may tabulate projections, but they would be without secondary sources for other voter information. Fox hasn't finalized its strategy yet; CNN, citing competitive reasons, doesn't want to talk about it.
But all of the news organizations—ABC, CBS, NBC, and potentially Fox and CNN—seem to be without safety nets after scrambling to regroup having disbanded their beleaguered Voter News Service last January. MSNBC and CNBC, which receive election returns from NBC, are in the same boat.
VNS fed the networks flawed data on Election Night 2000, resulting in embarrassing reporting gaffes, and had a massive software failure in 2002, forcing the networks to tap their fallback, the Associated Press, for vote counts and forgo exit polls altogether.
After the 2000 debacle, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) initially accused the networks of bias against the GOP and later hauled network news presidents before his panel to explain what went wrong. "Projecting winners" became kind of a national joke.
In 2004? "I don't expect problems," ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin said. "Everybody has learned from the experience."
Earlier this year, the networks split up the functions of the late VNS. AP, the savior in 2002, will provide vote tabulations for presidential and congressional elections through 2008. But that leaves TV news operations without a second source.
Two polling firms—Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research—will provide the networks and AP with exit-poll results, projections and analysis for the 2004 election season.
"There's never been a backup to the exit polling," said Linda Mason, vice president of public affairs at CBS. "So why should we start now?" Nevertheless, limited polling and projections conducted by several networks in 2002, including CBS, helped lessen the damage when exit-poll results were not available, several TV executives said.
Network officials profess full confidence in the AP because it has been reporting election returns for more than 150 years. "There's no reason to believe that a separate organization provides you with a better check," Halperin said of the AP arrangement. "They're basically backing themselves up in the same way they used to back up VNS."
CNN Political Director Tom Hannon likened VNS to its replacements as "an apples to oranges comparison."
AP Director of Elections Tabulations Tom Jory defended the move. "Nobody else does this. We've had to build into our system as much redundancy as we can."
But some of the networks' harshest critics in 2000 have reservations about 2004.
"The problem with this is that there's no real rehearsal," said Tom Wolzien, senior media analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "Any time you do live television without a backup is risky."
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, complained, "In response to the decline in audience, they're cutting corners and cheapening their product. There's an old saying among pollsters: 'Five bad polls equal one good poll.'" Errors become visible with multiple sources, he said.
After spending an estimated $8 million to $12 million in a failed overhaul of VNS, most networks are in no mood to spend millions more on extra polling, as they routinely did until the 1990s.
"The costs were prohibitive," said Bill Wheatley, vice president of news at NBC. "There comes a point where you could be foolish about money that you spend. We do work within budgets."
But Wolzien chafes at the response. "An extra $10 million or $20 million is a drop in the bucket for these guys. You're talking about companies with $20 billion to $40 billion in revenue here."
Warren Mitofsky, head of the polling firm that bears his name, is a legend in the business; he ran VNS's predecessor in the early 1990s and developed the CBS/New York Times
poll, directing it for 15 years. Joseph Lenski, head of Edison Research, worked with Mitofsky at CBS.
Despite solid reputations, though, errors occur, such as the computer problems that prevented Mitofsky from delivering data to clients during the 1994 midterm elections.
Without Election Night fallbacks, the networks will rely on shoe-leather reporting and internal analysis of pooled data to determine whether the information they receive is correct. "Because we will be using a new system," Wheatley said, "everybody is going to be extra cautious about how they will be using the data."
As a last resort, networks can gather vote totals from secretaries of state Web sites, but the returns are not always readily available and can be cumbersome to collect.
Adding to the pressure: The AP and the polling firms must complete technology and software upgrades to meet the high-volume demands of the networks.
AP is spending millions to create five distinct systems—housed in two regional centers (on opposite sides of the country in case there's a catastrophic event, such as a massive power outage).
Much of the testing is being done on the fly. The first real-world tests of the revamped AP and polling systems will occur Nov. 3, during gubernatorial races in Mississippi and Kentucky. That leaves little time before the Jan. 19 Iowa Caucus and Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary for adjustments. "It is a truncated time period. That was a concern for all of us," said Marty Ryan, an executive producer with Fox News Channel.
Officials with AP, which handles thousands more races in an election year than VNS did, insist the system will be ready. Various iterations of it have been around for decades, and AP won't have to worry about exit polls. Mitofsky and Edison indicate that they're on track.
AP, Mitofsky and Edison successfully fed the networks voter data during the Oct. 7 gubernatorial recall in California but didn't use their upgraded systems.
Although the AP has a strong record on calling elections, it occasionally errs. In 2000, based on flawed VNS data, it joined other news outlets in wrongly projecting Vice President Al Gore the winner in Florida. But the AP won kudos for not prematurely declaring George W. Bush the winner of Florida and the presidency, as others did.
Sources agree there's little room for error in 2004 and that Congress—already upset with the networks over relaxation of the media-ownership rules—would react strongly if big mistakes occur.
"The government should stay out of this," Rosenstiel said, adding that the only thing worse than network errors in 2000 was the congressional intervention that followed. "We have something called the First Amendment."